John Boyega covers the October issue of British GQ this month, talking about his impassioned speech at a London Black Lives Matter rally earlier this summer and his experience with Star Wars, now that he’s free and clear of the franchise and has had some time to reflect. Of course, the Star Wars stuff is getting the most attention, and we’ll get there, but I love what Boyega says about his rally moment, though I hate that he has to explain himself. He emphasizes that the speech was ad hoc, that it wasn’t planned and he had nothing prepared—or calculated—to say, that he was merely responding to the moment and what he was seeing on the faces of the other Black men in the crowd. He says, “I feel like, especially as celebrities, we have to talk through this filter of professionalism and emotional intelligence. […] Sometimes you just need to be mad. You need to lay down what it is that’s on your mind. Sometimes you don’t have enough time to play the game.”
This is the humanity frequently denied celebrities, in a culture that often rolls its eyes at celebrities with a sarcastically implied, Boo-hoo to the poor rich people. But there are some things no amount of fame or money insulates you against, and racial inequality and discrimination are among those things. Boyega’s speech is a galvanizing moment in a summer full of galvanizing moments, not least because we all realized he was taking his career in his hands at that moment, and that he decided speaking his truth was more important. (He’ll be fine, though, don’t worry.)
In the long run, Boyega’s off-the-cuff quality, the sense that you never really know what multitudes he contains, will serve him well. That’s the kind of quality that allows an actor to pivot with seeming ease from genre to genre, from big to small projects, from film to television (his next project is an anthology series with Steve McQueen). At just 18, Boyega fronted the sci-fi cult hit Attack the Block, and of that moment, McQueen says, “He [was] a bona fide movie star.” I met Boyega while he was promoting that movie and yes, you could tell he would go on to big things. He just had that energy—had that MUCH energy—and reading this GQ profile, it feels like a somewhat older and now wiser Boyega is harnessing that energy in purposeful ways.
Which brings us to Star Wars, because one of the ways a wiser Boyega is directing his energy is away from the divisive debacle of the sequel trilogy. It will go down in history as one of the most egregious examples of wasted potential in cinema, and for Boyega it was especially frustrating. Of his Star Wars experience, he says, “[W]hat I would say to Disney is do not bring out a black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side. It’s not good. I’ll say it straight up.”
He goes on to say, “Like, you guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver. […] You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know f-ck all. So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, ‘I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience...’ Nah, nah, nah. I’ll take that deal when it’s a great experience. They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let’s be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I’m not exposing anything.”
Obviously, we’re not used to hearing franchise superstars talk this way about the thing that made them internationally famous. But anyone who has seen the sequel trilogy can hardly argue with Boyega. They DIDN’T know what to do with Finn, or Poe, or Rose Tico, or Jannah (the new character played by Naomie Ackie in The Rise of Skywalker). And even though he seems to defend JJ Abrams over Rian Johnson—“He wasn’t even supposed to come back and try to save your sh-t”—I will point out that Abrams is the one who chucked Rose Tico to the sidelines, so no filmmaker really comes off well on this point. But I can understand the frustration. From the first teaser of The Force Awakens, it seemed like Finn was supposed to be the main character. It turned out Rey was the main character, and no one seemed to have a plan for any characters other than her and Kylo Ren.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to be given such a huge opportunity only for it to go so far awry, not only with the behind-the-scenes upheaval but also the racial abuse hurled at any and everyone not-white in the Star Wars cast by toxic fans. On one point, though, I disagree with Boyega slightly. He says, “I’m the only cast member who had their own unique experience of that franchise based on their race.” There’s no medal in the misery Olympics, but Kelly Marie Tran being a woman of color definitely played into her treatment at the hands of the same toxic fans threatening to boycott Star Wars because of a Black stormtroooper. She was bullied off social media and definitely had her big break ruined by this toxicity, too. This does not undermine or lessen Boyega’s own experience, but Star Wars has a toxicity problem that goes way beyond any one person involved, and in a way, the franchise ultimately leaning too much on Rey and Kylo Ren and basically abandoning every other character—who all happened to be people of color—only feeds the toxic fans what they want. In the end, those fans got their wish: the Black stormtrooper wasn’t all that important, the Asian-American character basically disappeared, and it all came down to the heroics of a couple of white people.
There is a time when John Boyega’s outspokenness would undoubtedly have hurt his career. I don’t think that time is now, though. He is an electric presence on screen, and his ability to see beyond surface matters and speak directly to the heart of some of the most critical issues in our society will serve him well in a film industry that increasingly prizes individuality and point of view (mainly for how they can be commodified, but still, the days of the corporate automaton are ending), and I won’t be surprised if he ends up writing and/or directing someday. John Boyega clearly has things to say, and his charisma and magnetism make you sit up and listen when speaks. Maybe Star Wars didn’t work out as he hoped, but in the long run, it will probably just be a footnote in an otherwise varied and interesting career.